Unique landlord

Published : Jan 13, 2012 00:00 IST

The heart of the country, Tagore repeatedly said, lay in its villages and no real progress could be achieved without alleviating rural poverty.

IN attempting to write on Rabindranath Tagore as a landlord, it is hard to resist the temptation to start with that often-told story, a favourite of all biographers of the poet the day in 1891 when the newly anointed zamindar attended his first Punyah, the rent collection ceremony, at Shilaidaha in undivided Nadia district, now a part of Kustia district in Bangladesh. Most descriptions are cinematic: the tall, handsome, young man, dressed in dhoti, kurta and shawl, arriving for the function amid ululation, the blowing of conch shells, ceremonial gunshots, and music. The programme includes a Brahmo prayer service and a Hindu worship, at the end of which the priest smears sandalwood paste on the landlord's forehead and receives his priestly dues of new clothes, curd, fish and money. And then begins the rent collection.

That is the script, except that Rabindranath throws it out of the window. He declares that the Punyah cannot start unless the seating arrangement is changed.

The traditional arrangement, in place since the days of the poet's grandfather Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, marked out seating areas on the basis of caste and religion. The ryots sat on the floor, Hindus on a part of the mat covered with a white sheet, with a separate space for Brahmins, while Muslims sat on the bare mat. There were seats for the estate managers and other employees, all demarcated according to rank. Babumashai, the landlord, sat on a richly upholstered throne-like chair.

At Tagore's behest, the ryots, both Hindus and Muslims, enthusiastically removed all the chairs and the white sheets, and everyone in the room sat on the floor, clustered around the young landlord. The estate manager and other senior employees, mostly Hindus, walked out and threatened to resign unless the old arrangement was restored, but Tagore was unmoved. In the end, he persuaded them not to resign and to join the function.

The seating arrangement for rent collection was not the only thing that Tagore changed about the zamindari he inherited. It is important to remember this story because it is symbolic of much of the work that he did during the long years he spent supervising the family estate. But first, a word about where this zamindari was located.

Dwarkanath and his father had invested heavily in land in eastern Bengal (now in Bangladesh) and Orissa. In eastern Bengal, the Tagores were the rent-collecting landlords under the Permanent Settlement in large chunks of land in Birahimpur Pargana of Kustia, with the rent office in Shilaidaha; Sajadpur Pargana in Pabna district, with the rent office at Sajadpur; Kaligram Pargana in Rajshahi district, with the rent office at Patisar. They also owned land in Hooghly, Jessore (now in Bangladesh) and Rangpur (also in Bangladesh) districts, and in Cuttack district in Orissa. Under Debendranath Tagore's last will made in 1899, the property in Orissa went to his son Hemendranath, while three other brothers, Dwijendranath, Satyendranath and Rabindranath, together got the property in Birahimpur and Kaligram. The Sajadpur property in Pabna had gone to the descendants of Debendranath's brother Girindranath.

Rabindranath was under 30 and already an established poet when he first found himself in charge of this jointly held family estate. He was directly engaged in managing it from 1890 to 1922, though his son Rathindranath shouldered much of the responsibility from 1910 onwards. The poet was initially also responsible for the property in Sajadpur and Cuttack, but these two estates subsequently went out of his supervision. In the end, after Satyendranath's son, Surendranath, chose Birahimpur, Rabindranath was responsible only for Patisar, the supervision of which was eventually taken over entirely by Rathindranath.

Tagore's creative flow was uninterrupted through this phase of his life; indeed, this was the period when he came into his own as a poet and story-teller. The countryside, with its joys and sorrows and its own inimitable conversations and songs, inspired poems and lyrics and many of his unforgettable short stories. The world now remembers him for the way he changed Bengali literature forever. But in this age of strife and ever-conflicting interests, it is no less important to remember what he did as a landlord.

An indication of what he intended to do came on that very first day, when he radicalised the seating for the rent collection. He declared, his biographers (see Jamidar Rabindranath by Amitava Choudhury) record, that it was his mission as a landlord to save the Sheikhs from the Sahas. Pramatha Choudhury, who was married to Rabindranath's niece Indira and worked on the Tagore estate for many years, has also written that one of the major duties for those entrusted with the running of the property was to save the Sheikhs from the Sahas (Ryoter Katha, or Story of the Ryots). Amitava Choudhury has explained that Rabindranath did not refer to a particular caste or racial group as Sahas or Sheikhs. Most of the wealthy and powerful moneylenders in his zamindari were Sahas, a Hindu caste of the lower middle order, but most of the poorest peasants were Muslims. What Rabindranath meant, says Choudhury, was that his priority as landlord was to save the poorest peasants from sinking into an endless cycle of debt that made a certain section rich.

Yet, this statement confronts us with a reality that culminated in the 1947 partition of Bengal. As historians have pointed out, the land relations of this province were such that what was in essence a conflict of classes and economic interests became a conflict between cultures and communities, between Muslim peasants and Hindu landlords/moneylenders. Tagore's own financial interests lay with the landowning class, yet he was one of the first to unflinchingly point to this truth and sound a warning that history has justified.

Tagore was also one of the first to point to the coinciding of interests of Muslims and the Scheduled Castes in rural Bengal. This was another prediction that came all too true in the years immediately preceding Partition, when S.C. peasants in eastern Bengal overwhelmingly supported the Muslim League (only to be horribly betrayed, of course, by the new regime in East Pakistan).

Tagore's thoughts on this separation of interests began to crystallise even during the heady days of 1905 when he briefly plunged into the movement against the first partition of Bengal and wrote for it some of his most memorable songs. The songs survive in popular memory, but the poet's doubts and anxieties lie buried in his largely ignored essays, letters and that wonderful and now almost forgotten novel, Ghare Baire (Home and Beyond, written in 1916). Yet these prescient doubts, which explain his eventual withdrawal from that movement and what he himself described as his flight to Santiniketan, need to be rescued from the cloistered world of scholarship.

In a 1907 article titled Byadhi O Pratikar (The disease and its remedy), Tagore wrote about a meeting organised in Calcutta in October 1905, where the nationalist leader Bipinchandra Pal was among the speakers. The audience comprised mostly Muslims. Roughly translated, this is what he wrote: The benefits of the Hindu and Muslim communities coming together were being explained to the Muslim audience. I could not at that time resist saying that this was not the occasion to talk about benefits and interests. It might make good financial sense for two brothers to live under the same roof, but that should not be the chief reason for their staying together. The most important thing is that we share the same land, and we are human beings. If we cannot live with each other, then that is shameful and immoral. We are both children of the same land, and if that divinely ordained tie does not impel us to not only pursue our mutual interests jointly but also be prepared to face all adversities together, then shame on our humanity. It is not our mutual interests that should bind us, but love and the ideal of selfless service. Only if we can do this will we be able to use all opportunities for progress and face all adversities successfully.

Indeed, few Bengali bhadralok intellectuals in the first decade of the 20th century were more aware than Tagore of the way mutual interests did not, in fact, bind the two communities. A large section of Bengali Muslims welcomed the partition of the province and were persuaded by the colonial administration's promise of more efficient administration, improved roads and connectivity, more schools and better health care and greater opportunities that would follow.

Some historians in recent years have shown how the partition did indeed result in improved literacy rates and other indices of progress among Bengali Muslims in eastern Bengal (Jahirul Hassan, Banglai Mussalmaner Aatsho Bachhar, or Muslims in Bengal Over Eight Hundred Years). As a landlord deeply involved in the welfare of the poor in rural Bengal, Tagore could not help being aware of this.

Ghare Baire, written some 10 years after the partition of Bengal, reflects this conflict of interest. It is now an accepted generalisation that Nikhilesh is the kind of landlord that Tagore himself was. Nikhilesh cannot bring himself to support the swadeshi movement against the partition of the province because he knows that his Muslim ryots do not stand to gain anything from that movement led by the Hindu landed gentry and intellectuals. The novel also fleetingly touches upon the greater acceptance that puritan Muslim maulvis were beginning to enjoy in the villages of eastern Bengal by this time.

Amid the heady days of the movement, before and after 1905, Tagore repeatedly made known his objection to the politics of boycott, especially in relation to education and universities. His observations did not cut much ice in a political environment dominated by Surendranath Banerjea. Tagore did not also approve of the way swadeshi gangs led by zealous Hindu youth looted shops and terrorised the countryside to enforce their political agenda of boycotting British-made goods (see Desh-heet, or For the good of the country, an essay he wrote in 1908). Indeed, Tagore was clearly able to see the movement as one motivated by the financial interests of the Hindu landowning class and was justifiably alarmed by the prospect of the communal animosities it could inspire. Ghare Baire touches upon the problem of Hindu communalism provoking a Muslim response.

In Byadhi O Pratikar he had written: That Muslims can be used against Hindus is worth a thought. Who might use them is not so important. The devil cannot gain an entry unless the door is kept open for it. It is better to be concerned more about the open door than about the devil. For a community that builds its religious practices on a culture of hate, for people who believe themselves to be damned if they so much as drink water offered by a neighbour, who preserve their caste purity by humiliating others, the fate of being humbled in turn is inescapable. We [Hindus] have prepared the way for our own damnation, created hurdles that prevent progress, and once we have fathomed this truth beyond a shadow of doubt, we must resolve to save ourselves and our country. Save from whom? From the consequences of our own sins. Is it only by the strength of their own might that the British dominate the country so completely today? It is our own weaknesses that provide them their strength (a rough translation).

Taunts about the bourgeois poet notwithstanding, few of the intellectuals of Tagore's time were as familiar with the heart of the country as he was, and this familiarity came from his years as a landlord, years during which he came in intimate contact with the countryside, spent long hours with farmers discussing seeds, fertilizers and insecticides, installed a sugarcane-processing mill, experimented with the cultivation of potatoes, tomatoes, corn and silkworms, introduced tractors in a land tilled only by ploughshare until then, tried out the latest findings of agricultural science, fought civil suits to protect the boundaries of the property, ran a rural bank for 20 years that made available loans to peasant entrepreneurs at reasonable rates, and did his best to encourage cottage industries to alleviate poverty in the countryside.

Researchers find it hard to reconstruct those years in detail because there are so few records. Records of the Tagore estate did not survive the 1947 Partition, and there is very little original material available, says Amitava Choudhury in his book. Yet, Tagore's biographers have a fair idea of those years from Tagore's own letters, essays and reminiscences by people associated with his work, including a book of memories by his son Rathindranath ( Pitrismriti or Memories of My Father).

The mandal system

The most revolutionary of all Tagore's initiatives, says Amitava Choudhury, was the mandal system he introduced in 1908. It was bound to fail, and so it did in the long run, because it sought to undermine too many vested interests. The Permanent Settlement had over the years built up a network of exploitation in rural Bengal, comprising landlords, wealthy farmers, moneylenders and managers and accountants working for the landlords, and this network had a stake in the perpetuation of rural poverty. The mandal system sought to carve out an independent economic and social space for poor, rent-paying peasants that would allow them, with constructive help from the landlord, to take charge of their lives in a meaningful way.

The Birahimpur Pargana was divided into five mandals, while the Kaligram Pargana was divided into three. Each mandal had an adhyaksh, or manager, who was entrusted with the task of engaging the people of the mandal to repair roads, ensure continuous supply of potable water, resolve disputes without resorting to litigation, establish schools, clear out jungles, and set up a granary as a buffer for famines. Each mandal had a committee of four members, two Hindus and two Muslims, apart from the manager. Half of the funds for these works were raised from the people, the other half was provided by the estate. Each mandal made its own budget and kept track of how much money was being spent.

The effect was spectacular in Patisar, which largely welcomed the initiative. Shilaidaha, immortalised in Tagore's work, did not take it too well. (Shilaidaha, incidentally, was the place where the poet set up home in 1899 with his wife and young children, living sometimes at the famous kuthibari, now a protected building in Bangladesh, sometimes on his boat on the Padma, giving rise to the lasting, and misleading, image of the rich poet writing his poems and stories in infinite leisure while sailing on the river.) But in Patisar, the system soon resulted in new roads, a free dispensary, schools and madrasas, and the flourishing of cottage industry initiatives.

In both Shilaidaha and Patisar, however, estate managers and other senior employees, mostly Hindus, were unhappy with the system. So were large landholders and moneylenders, the section that thrived on the endless cycle of poverty and debt. The peasants who stood to gain from his initiatives were also sometimes distrustful and wary, which meant that Tagore had to fight a battle for hearts before he could achieve anything. A large section of the Muslim peasants in the Tagore estate, especially in Patisar, were cooperative because they stood to gain the most.

Tagore, however, did have a few dedicated workers who tried to give concrete shape to his vision of a prosperous countryside. The two men most often mentioned by his biographers were Kalimohan Ghosh in Shilaidaha and Atul Sen in Kaligram. The obstacles and hostilities they encountered were formidable, but they received constant encouragement from Tagore, who kept himself abreast of all developments in his estate and went through the books and accounts regularly. His letters to them give an idea of what he expected of them. In a letter to Atul Sen, quoted by Amitava Choudhury, he said: Put all your heart and mind into the effort to win over people's hearts, you will see all hurdles will disappear. It is not of course possible to have everyone on your side when you are trying to do your duty, but the people should be made to understand that you completely deserve their respect, that all your efforts are dedicated to their service. If you can achieve this, then all obstacles are bound to recede.

Tagore had a keen interest in cooperative farming. He realised that the hopelessly fragmented landholdings did not provide the best conditions for modern methods of farming and the creation of wealth. He tried to talk his peasants into setting up a cooperative model of farming, but the initiative did not make much headway. Suspicions about such a model were too strong. What he saw in Soviet Russia in 1930 revived his old regrets about the situation: It had been my objective to make the peasant strong through his own initiative. Two things keep playing on my mind all the time the land does not rightfully belong to the landlord, it is the peasant's. Secondly, if landholdings cannot be brought together under cooperative farming, there can be no progress in agriculture. Trying to farm fragmented holdings with the ancient ploughshare is like pouring water into a leaky pot. ( Letters from Russia)

It was the cooperative principle that led him to found a rural bank in Patisar in 1905 with money borrowed from friends. The Nobel Prize money was sunk in this bank. The objective was to free peasants from the clutches of moneylenders, without which, Tagore realised, they would never have the means to invest in cottage industries or in better seeds and fertilizers. Rathindranath has said in his memoirs that the bank was so successful in its initial years that moneylenders in Patisar wound up their business and left in search of greener pastures. The bank failed in 1925, sinking the ageing poet in debt.

Tagore also tried to protect the poor from the cost of litigation. Peasants in the Tagore estate did not take their disputes to courts of law. The residents of every village chose a gram pradhan, who formed a committee of five men, or pancha pradhan. All disputes were referred to the pancha pradhan, while final appeals were made to the poet himself. Amitava Choudhury says the system continued in Kaligram even after Tagore's death and ended only with Partition.

Schools, hospitals, roads, drinking water, cottage industries, scientific methods of farming, a rural bank for loans at reasonable rates no aspect of rural development was absent in the vision of this unique zamindar. No work was too mundane for him, there was nothing that he could not set his mind to. He scrutinised the books of accounts with infinite care and personally supervised all the civil suits that his estate had to fight, becoming in the process an expert in the finer points of law. Unlike the absentee landlord described by Amitav Ghosh in Sea of Poppies, the zamindari was not for him an avenue to create wealth to be spent on luxuries in the city, but an opportunity for service. In his letters and essays, Tagore repeatedly said that the heart of the country lay in its villages and that no real progress could be possible without the development of agriculture and alleviation of poverty in the countryside.

In a speech towards the end of his life, in 1938, he said: My duties once drew me into close intimacy with rural Bengal. I witnessed the lack of drinking water in villages, I observed the havoc that disease and hunger played on human bodies. Time and again, I came across proof of the way the lack of education and mental stagnation led to endless exploitation and oppression. The city-bred, English-educated sections who were trying to steer the ship of national progress did not spare a thought on the way the cumulative helplessness of the people in villages was one day bound to drown that ship (rough translation).

And to the landlords he said at the Pabna Provincial Conference in 1907: This is what I am saying to the landlords: if you do not empower the unfortunate ryots and allow them to be independent and able to save themselves from your own clutches and those of others, no laws, however good, and no government, however friendly, will be able to save them. The tongues of the greedy start watering the moment they see these people. If the majority of the people are forever exposed to the machinations of landlords, moneylenders, policemen and court officials, how do you expect them to take charge of their own destinies?

A hundred years later, those words remain relevant.

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